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Friday, December 26, 2014

Et incarnatus est

The Word became flesh. I wonder, Is that a reversible process? Once God committed self to humanity so completely, is it possible to become God again?

Christmas season always makes me think thoughts like that. Who created whom? It’s not a startlingly original thought that it was humanity that created God, and not the other way around, but I have to think it’s fairly startling to think that if we created this God, the God who did not deem equality with God something to be clutched, but poured himself out, then we have really reached beyond ourselves as a race. We’re all about accumulating, self-preservation, and survival of the fittest; it’s etched into our DNA. And yet, somehow, we have conjured a God who is precisely the opposite of that: kenotic, self-emptying, so utterly other-oriented that we cannot imagine this God except as a community of love, a Trinity. This, to me, is a strong argument for revelation and the truth at the heart of the Scriptures: the God who is revealed in its pages is different than the one we ought to have made, were we to create one in our own image and likeness.

I don’t have much more to say about this. There is a beautiful prayer from the Roman liturgy that is rarely spoken aloud in the Sunday celebration, usually covered by the assembly’s singing. But at the moment when the priest pours a drop of water into the chalice during the preparation rite, he says the words, “By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Every time we celebrate the mass! What an awesome thought and daring prayer. And yet, it is doxology - it’s the Church’s faith expressed in its most decisive ritual. God, irreversibly poured into humanity, becomes human so that human people might become God. There’s not another explanation for John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life is an attribute of God, not of creation. The Catechism says, undilutedly, in paragraph 460: "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." (St. Irenaeus) "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." (St. Athanasius) "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (St. Thomas Aquinas).

I guess as long as the “baby Jesus” hoopla of religious Christmas keeps us focused unromantically on the fact that this God became this child who became this man, it’s all to the good. Remembering who Jesus actually became, and what God (of Exodus, creation, and liberation) became human, ought to serve as a corrective to our desire to make the man Jesus back into a God on earth with apocryphal stories of clay birds becoming alive or conquering emperors coming on clouds. Let’s grapple with the reality of the Word taking flesh, becoming one of us. Maybe it takes a God to be willing to set divinity aside, and not lust after its apparent power the way people do. Finally, maybe Christmas ought to  give us the courage to become human. If it’s good enough for God, it ought to be good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Still, Still, Still

I made this little montage of images to accompany the new recording of my arrangement and text of the venerable German Christmas song, Still, Still, Still. It is one of six Christmas songs we recorded this year, including a Christmas Gloria based on "Angels We Have Heard on High," a new text and arrangement of "In the Bleak Midwinter," and a set of "Four European Carols for Small Choirs," of which one is this version of "Still, Still, Still." How all this plays out as a published recording will be negotiated over the next couple of months, but the project itself, thirteen songs in all, is finally done, with a working title of, To You Who Bow. More on that as it develops.

For today, though, we have to admit that it has been a tough couple of months for the world, and it's good not to forget that as we celebrate this feast. May the words and sounds of this season not just narcotize us against the pain around us and within us, but give us hope to "stand in the wind and walk in the reign" of God with Jesus. That's my new mantra, borrowed from the writing of the great John Dominic Crossan: "We can't do it without God, and God won't do it without us." Salvation—the health and good life of humanity—is a work of participatory justice.

So I send you love and hope from the three of us, and from Gary Daigle, who produced the recording with patience and skill. Blessings of the season to all, and blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas 2014

Today, we just want to share our video "Christmas Card" with you, and say Thank you for reading this blog through the year, and commenting here, and on Facebook, or wherever. Terry, Desi and I wish you the very best through the holidays and the new year. "God bless us, every one!"

Next time you're online during the holidays, look for a brief music video of one of the songs we've recorded this past fall, "Still, Still, Still," one of four "European Carols for Small Choirs" that I arranged and wrote new texts for. I'll post it here on Christmas Day.


Monday, December 22, 2014

SongStories 38: Forever I Will Sing (Psalm 89, from Cries of the Spirit, NALR, 1991)

There are some songs that you know aren't great, but you hold onto them anyway because they're good enough, and they come from a place of joy and meaning in your life. "Foreve I Will Sing" is one of those. It was the responsorial psalm this past Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of advent in year B, which made me think I could write one of these little SongStories posts, since I hadn't done one in a while.

It struck me as I was teaching it to the high school age cantor last night that I was not much older than he is when I wrote it. I remember quite well that I wrote it in summer school while I was in the seminary, probably for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year A, which would mean it was 1972, here in Chicago, at DePaul University. I was 20. The verses for Advent 4 year B were added later. We had mass that summer many times in a common room of the dormitory where we were living, and used the instruments we had available, mostly guitars and small percussion.

"Forever I Will Sing" has a simple chord structure. I wrote it in the key of E, but we generally played it in the key of C, capoing the guitar at the 4th fret. It has the dreaded boy-key tessitura for the cantor, and was published that way, probably not a smart marketing move. In real life these days, we've been singing it in the key of D, even with male cantors. You can hear that my recording of it, made with Tom Kendzia in his Rhode Island studio, sounds anything but relaxed at the beginning of those phrases that start on the high E. What I did for love.

And I really did do it for love: this psalm, with it's barely restrained jubilance, was my theme song for many years, at least in my heart. When my friends and I recorded on an old reel-to-reel tape in the early 70s the songs I'd written (and a few others), we called the recording "Forever I Will Sing," because the words of the refrain really articulate what we all felt about our lives, but especially about the privilege of making music together, especially music for our prayer and the liturgy. We didn't know any better, and it was good that way at the time, expressing ourselves, what we were discovering about prayer, church, and God in new music that suited us and helped us pray, we thought, authentically.

Written for guitar, it still sounds best with that simple accompaniment. The song never had a descant, any harmony parts, or instrumental parts other than the keyboard accompaniment that is de rigueur for publishing. It's just that simple melody over that simple E / F#m7/E / Emaj7 / F#m7/E progression, broken up by the accented 2/4 measure before the transition into the refrain. Maybe it's the "hook"-y hold of "forever" across the bar and chord change before the expanding intervals as we sing "I will sing of the goodness of the Lord" that enamored me of the tune, or maybe I'm just nostalgic for the simplicity and chutzpah of my younger self, just beginning my "Cat Stevens - Neil Young" period. I think, as someone old enough now to be the grandfather of the boy who wrote it, that the music fits the text. It certainly fits the songwriter and his vision of the text, which I hope makes it acceptable to the One from whom all music flows, and to whom its hungry, joyful longing is directed.

Playing it makes me smile; your smileage may vary. ☺

Forever I Will Sing, publisher's page at

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fiat (B4A)

There is a pattern to the gospels of the four Advent Sundays that is followed in all three cycles. The first Sunday is generally focused on an apocalyptic proclamation from late in the ministry of Jesus, a way of making clear at the outset of Advent that things aren’t finished yet, in spite of our conviction that somehow Jesus is the once-and-for-all savior, the unique incarnate Son of God. The first Sunday of Advent seems to caution us each year not to think that Christmas is a feast for waiting for the birth of a Messiah who is, in fact, already present. It’s more like a warning not to miss that presence this time around, as the outcome of our heedlessness will be bad news for everyone concerned. This will not be a divine punishment, but the natural consequence of idolatry: wrong god = negative outcome. The second and third Sundays introduce the character of John the Baptizer, who is at the margin of civilization, that energy that is a force for order by means of threat, hire, violence, trickle-down economics and, rarely, altruism. John is the “voice in the wilderness,” telling us to pay attention to what’s happening to us, to turn away from our idols and wash off the old empire in the holy river, and to start acting with justice and integrity.

The fourth Sunday introduces the main characters in the events of the “first” incarnation - notably Mary in years B and C, and Joseph in year A. In this year, year B, we hear the story of the Annunciation in Luke, which we heard two weeks ago on the feast of the Immaculate Conception (footnote: the annunciation, contrary to what was actually preached at an all school mass at St. Anne once upon a time, is not the immaculate conception, which is not a scriptural event. But that’s neither here nor there. The immaculate conception refers to the conception of the Blessed Mother being without original sin; the feast is on December 8, 9 months before her birthday, September 8. The annunciation is about the conception of Jesus; its feast is March 25, nine months before the feast of Christmas. Isn’t it nice how all the math works out?)

Mary’s response to Gabriel in the Vulgate, preserved in Christian prayer in the Angelus, has become a synonym for any top-down decision in business or government. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum: let it be done to me according to your word, has been shortened to “fiat”, let it be done, in our jargon. “Make it so,” as Jean-Luc Picard would say. But this “fiat” is anything but an expression of power and strength in the way we ordinarily think of power and strength. It is an act of surrender. It is an act of divinity, an alignment with the will of an invisible God who is leaping from heaven in order to be one with humanity. It can thus be seen as an act of power, but one has to redefine power as whatever God does, including this kenosis, this love that is so perfect and intense that it pours itself out for the life of the other. 

This is the same covenant love expressed to Moses when God reveals the divine name, represented in the Hebrew Scriptures by the tetragram YHWH and never said aloud. But the rabbis taught that the name might be God’s way of saying “who I am, I am for you,” an expression of the covenant, still revealing its meaning to us after three and half millennia, by which God shows solidarity with us who are not God.

Coming out the mouth of an unmarried young woman in a patriarchal society, in a country that has been at best a vassal state to Egypt, Greece, and Rome for three centuries, and a strategic outpost for every major power in the Middle East for six hundred years before that, Mary’s “fiat” is a word of faith in the exodus that explodes into the Magnificat, in which she celebrates a God who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly to high places,” who “fills up the poor with good things, and sends the rich away empty.” It is a word of alignment with the empire that is not like that of this world, but is nevertheless a word of sedition and heresy, rejecting an emperor and a corrupt temple, and already forming the conscience of the man about to take shape in her womb.

So it’s little wonder that the first reading recounts the story of the covenant with David, the first great king of Israel, and that the psalm continues that thread. The whole Davidic king thing didn’t work out so well, either for Israel or for God, but it showed both God and Israel what is really important: solidarity, community, hope. The emergence of Jesus amid all that God and Israel learned together from centuries of dominance by Persia, Babylon, Greece, Egypt, the Hasmoneans, and now Rome, becomes the story for the rest of the Bible, and is the story for us. There is a different empire now. Whoever wants to be the king has to serve everyone else. Being God means being the greatest servant of all, the one who is poured out completely. That looks, to us who are enamored of power, our kind of life, and wealth, for all the world like death. But its incarnation, right before our eyes, is a pregnant woman about to undertake an arduous journey that will fill up songbooks as long as people sing. 
Here’s our lineup of music for Advent 4 at St. Anne’s:

Gathering: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Psalm 89: Forever I Will Sing (Cooney, OCP)

Preparation Rite: Say the Word (Cooney, GIA) or No Wind at the Window
Communion: I Say Yes, My Lord

Closing: Canticle of the Turning

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.

May it be done to me according to your word.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gaudete in Tenebris - Advent in 2012

I uncovered a few notes from Gaudete Sunday in 2012. In that year, you may recall, a young man named Adam Lanza shot over two dozen people to death, including twenty children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a Friday morning. That Sunday would be the third Sunday of Advent, "Rejoice" Sunday. This year, Gaudete Sunday marks the 2nd anniversary of that tragedy.

I'm posting these notes and bringing all this up again because nothing really changes. Life is hard and people are dying senselessly in 2014, and to voters in this country it's almost as though nothing happened. To Christians in this country, it seems to be more guns, and more people having access to guns, that will save us, and not Christ and the Sermon on the Mount instructions to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and the whole trajectory of non-violence that is in the gospels.

But life was hard in biblical times, too. The advent texts in Isaiah and the prophets that we love so much were conceived in times of treacherous leadership in Israel and Judah, in the crucible of siege and war, and in the disconnected horror that was the Babylonian exile. Life was violent and unpredictable then, too, and yet out of those days and times arose these texts we love and pray and sing two and a half millennia later, words about lions and lambs playing together, people beating swords into plow blades, and never again learning the art of killing each other.

Anyway, my pastor asked me, between the morning of the tragedy and Sunday, to write down any thoughts I had to see if any of it would help our homilists that weekend, so I did, and I uncovered those notes. I read them in the context of the violence in Africa, the kidnappings by Boko Naram in Nigeria, the torture report in the Senate, the beheadings of western charity workers, teachers, and journalists by Islamists in and around Syria, and the violence on the streets of the United States visited upon people of color by police agencies, and the resulting explosion of senseless violence, looting, and the destruction of property that has ensued.

I don't want to pretend I know anything more than anyone else, so I'm not going to edit my comments from 2012. I would probably nuance language here and there and it might make me sound more "together" or some other artificial thing, but instead, this is just what I wrote to him. Mostly, it's still what I think, and it seems really just as fitting today as it was in 2012, mutatis mutandis.
Here are a few random thoughts I've had, if any of it helps. I need to start by saying what I'll end by saying - I don't see any meaning in this tragedy. But it's not an isolated event. People aren't helpless against this. We all have choices to make about violence and the way we live. The gospel and liturgy are all about this. We can't have it both ways, though, choosing violence AND "merry Christmas." At least we in the church can't.  
1. Advent - the central question, the heart of advent, it seems to me, is always the unfinished business down here. If Jesus came to bring the reign of God, why isn't it here yet? If God is God, why the inequality and suffering? In all the scriptures today, the world was a mess, especially for the people doing the writing. We need to keep that in mind. It wasn't better for any of them - it was worse. And yet our hope derives from their hope. Look at the words of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" - they express lamentation, exile, disunity, and yet the refrain repeats "rejoice, rejoice" - because hope -meaning- will come. We just can't predict when or how. We can just be faithful. 
2. The Christmas story is the Easter story - the paschal mystery - as prelude to the rest of the gospel. To me, it's dealing with the fundamental choice between the reign of God and the reign of "this world," of emperors and kings and constitutions. This world organizes itself by violence and threats of violence. The reign of God is organized by the Holy Spirit, by addressing needs with gifts, the sharing of life. The gospel never says that Augustus or Tiberias or Pilate or Herod don't have power. It challenges who they say they are - god, son of god, prince of peace, by offering Jesus as a different king not like the kings of this world. In the nativity story, the power of the empire to do violence is seen in the story of the holy innocents, and the power of God to save in the story of the flight into Egypt. Modern people eventually have to choose between the empires, too. For instance, between the power of the constitution to protect them and give them real life, and the power of God to give them real life. It's always about real death and real life. Can we have real life by violence and threats of violence? Or is it only by peace, self-gift, and vulnerability that fullness of life for everyone can be attained? 
3. So the liturgy is already about meaning, death, and resurrection. The eucharist is about solidarity and life-sharing around the table that is a sign of solidarity and life-sharing in the world. It's a sign that people are at least making the effort to turn away from sin (the kingdoms of "this world") and believe in the good news (the reign of God, in this world.) My sense is that, if the liturgy fails to be about this for people and for us, it's because we've trivialized and spiritualized it for so long that it doesn't have the power it should have.  
4. After all is said and done, we're left with this meaningless slaughter and mired in grief and bewilderment on a Sunday called Gaudete. But no believer ever had it easy. Belief for the prophets, apostles, and faithful of Israel and the apostolic community was never a party. It was always about hope in the midst of darkness and the possibility of despair. Zephaniah, Paul, and the Luke community all had to deal with God's absence, persecution, rejection, and danger. But their hope was in either the God of the exodus or the God who raised Jesus from the dead that being a people ultimately was stronger and more meaningful than the persecutor or occupying empire. 
5. I don't think we can make sense of this now. Those murdered children aren't "angels" that God needed (ugh), but we trust that God somehow surrounds them and has a plan for them and for us that he will attain not by revenge and violence but through peace and invitation. The mantra in the gospel today is "what can we do (to prepare for the Messiah)?" The answer is always to act with patience, charity, and God's justice. Be our best selves, look out for the other person. Meaning will start to emerge from the chaos as we do these things. But society/empire will always fight back, as it did against Jesus. We have to be aware of that. That's what "take up your cross" means. 
I will write a better, longer (but not long) concluding prayer for the intercessions. I'm not going to do it now, I want to have the OCF as a resource. I think you should mention the children and teachers who were murdered in the eucharistic prayer when the dead are mentioned. It will also give me the morning to consult with a few colleagues and see if any of them have better insight about this than I do. I hope they do.
I wish I could do better for you and for everyone at St Anne's. I don't think I can serve them better by not telling them the truth. Since I don't know the truth beyond my experience and modest faith, I feel fewer words are better, avoiding platitudes, false comfort, scapegoating, and all the strategies of false religion.
Here's the introduction I wrote to the mass for Gaudete Sunday that year, or to the penitential rite:
How difficult it is today to hear Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord, always, I say it again, Rejoice! What joy can come to us on this day, so near the tragedy in Newtown? Yet, rejoice we must, because hope insists on the advent message: the Lord is near. What puts the “good” in “good news” is the presence of God, especially with those most in need of God’s appearance. Let us be grateful for this good news on this “Gaudete” Sunday, and rejoice in the Lord’s mercy, which is ever near.  
Here is a prayer for the end of the intercessions (prayer of the faithful), based on 399:1 and 398:43 in the Order of Christian Funerals.
Father of mercies and God of all consolation,
You dispel the shadow of death with the bright dawn of life.
Comfort your people in our loss and sorrow,
lift us from our grief into the peace and light of your presence.
So many this week were taken quickly and violently from us, young and unguarded,
they are suddenly gone from our sight, and from their homes and families.
Come swiftly to their aid, bring them to you,
and flood their families with comfort and signs of your presence.
By dying, Jesus destroyed our death,
by rising, he restored our life.
Enable us to press on toward the celebration of his birth in joyful hope,
that one day we may gather with all whom you love,
where every tear will be wiped away, and death will be no more.
May your kingdom come.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
I guess there's no end to this post. It's just a question. Where do we get the heart to rejoice in the face of such horror, day in and day out?

The liturgy seems to say, Rejoice because God is doing it. God is making something happen. "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it," says St. Paul. Isaiah rejoices in the mission God gives to bring joy where there is none, because "as the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations." It's not us, it's God's work, and we need to figure out a way to get with it. As Dominic Crossan says, and I love to remember this, "We can't do it without God, and God won't do it without us." Salvation, whatever that means, is by participation. That's the meaning of Matthew 25: 31-48 too.

Pete Seeger had a similar insight, and being a performing musician, that was the metaphor he keyed in on: "I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Living on the edge (B3A)

Much is made of the role of “the wilderness” in writing about the gospel of Mark, the preaching of John, and the origin of Jesus in Galilee. It’s sort of like the parish where I live ... at the outward western edge of the Archdiocese of Chicago, we’re somewhat sequestered from the politics and watchful eye of the powers that be. We like it that way.  The tendrils of power have influence that is related to distance, and there is benefit and woe to living in the wilderness. But the danger of being in a wilderness region of a wilderness colony is also very real. You might be overlooked on this or that nitpicking piece of legislation, the tax collector might come through less frequently, but also you’re more vulnerable to hostile forces, and your home is likely to be the first battleground if a clash in coming, so that the treasures of the populated city are less likely to be torched. 

Jerusalem was, of course, the center of the Roman occupation force; there were garrisons in the outlying areas as well, particularly near the larger economic centers like Capernaum and Caesarea on the Sea of Galilee. It is in Jerusalem that the foreign occupying power has its center, where the Roman governor resides in his fortress. It is there that the Jewish hierarchy and landed elite live as well, carefully managing their status through compromise and collaboration with Rome. In this relationship of exploitation that is both political and economic, the big losers are the ordinary people, artisans, farmers, fishermen, who make up the people of God. The Pax Romana is not for them, it is for Rome. It will not crush them as long as they cooperate with the regime, pay their taxes, and keep their mouths shut.

For John, though, the axe is already laid to the root of the tree. He sees that Israel, born in the Exodus, was meant for freedom, not for subjugation. His baptism of repentance was a way of allowing people to wash off the fouling influence of emperor worship and be cleansed in the waters of the promised land, God’s land of milk and honey. It is in the wilderness, significantly away from the influence of the city, that he does his ministry. The emissaries of the power elite have to come out to him to find out what he’s up to. He cryptically informs them that he’s just the scout; there is one coming after him who will turn his cleansing bath into a smelter. It’s not clear that even John knows what is coming; later, from prison, he sends emissaries to his cousin Jesus to ask if he’s the one, and Jesus tells them to report back what they’ve seen for themselves. He refers them to healing and restoration, signs of the advent of God’s dominion, the defeat of sin and the clear alternative to the dominion of the murderous Pax Romana. This is not to say that Jesus was an advocate for a violent revolution, but, violent or not, turning away from the emperor would bring upon his followers the wrath of Caesar’s empire in years to come.

John reminds me that it’s my job to live on the edge. Human boundaries of church and state tend to want to tighten because the power of the institution is the sphere of its influence. But the reign of Jesus, the reign of God, is not like the kingdoms of this world. I always have to be on guard against the creeping influence both of nationalistic and ecclesial triumphalism. Ultimately, I don’t belong to the USA nor to Catholic Rome, I belong to Christ. My book is neither the catechism nor the constitution; it is the word of God, and by that, I don’t even necessarily mean Scripture, I mean Christ. What could go wrong?

Obviously, I’m not the sole or best interpreter of what that means. I need to be in dialogue with both the Church and the nation. What I've learned this year, or at least have been able to articulate and start to interiorize better than anything else, are these two things, about which I've written in earlier posts: 1) doing our best is not the same as doing good; and 2) not achieving my ideal is not the same as doing badly. In the first case, we should not excuse violence, war, making money hand-over-fist in the markets as doing good just because we don't see another path that will work. When people are hurt, impoverished, marginalized, and killed because of what we do, it should be a clear indication that we're doing evil, not good, however necessary our deeds might be. Only God is good, and our activity is only good in that it is like God, that is, more concerned with the other than with the self. This should change how we worship, I think, and how we think about repentance. In the latter case, as a Catholic lifer, I need to overcome my need to be right all the time, and stop putting down steps forward that aren't in what I perceive to be the right direction. "Being right" is a communal reality, and rarely what any of us thinks it is. Sometimes communal missteps can lead to major corrections that benefit everyone. I need to pay attention to both of these realities in my life.

But my baptismal ties to Christ are more real and stronger than all the other ties that bind me; in fact, they bind me more closely to both church and state than any creed or pledge of allegiance could, but only insofar as the demands of either do not countermand the command of the gospel to love the other as I love myself. It is a precarious place for a liturgist to live, because the liturgy upholds Christ who is both icon and iconoclast. Christ is a person, not an idea, nor a creed. Whenever Christ begins to look too much like a god, a general, an emperor, a legislator, I find him bending down to wash my feet and the feet of the world. May it be so with me and you, and all who seek him this advent season.

Music for this “Gaudete” Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

Gathering: On Jordan’s Bank
Psalm: Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) Luke 2. "Mary's Song," by Michael Joncas, lyrics by Huub Oosterhuis.
Gifts: Come to Us, O Emmanuel (Gift of God) (Haugen) We've used this to gather the first two Sundays of Lent. Doing it during the preparation of the gifts should give us the opportunity to sing all the verses and really sit with it.
Communion: Walk in the Reign (Cooney) If you've sung this song, you know that I tried to write the verses to reflect the language and imagery of each of the four Sundays. We sing it during ordinary time in the summer with "parable" verses to help pull the liturgical year together, and even since it isn't in Gather any longer I use it once or twice during Advent because it continues to be a favorite at our place, and a refrain people can sing without looking at their worship aid, making it a good seasonal communion song.
Recessional: O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I try to save this for the last two Sundays of Advent, simply because the origin of the text is from the vespers Magnificat antiphons for the last seven evenings before Christmas. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the antiphons for those nights are called the “O” antiphons, referring to the names of the Messiah used at the beginning of each one. These are the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” except that their order has been reversed, the song beginning with Emmanuel, rather than ending, as the antiphons do with “Emmanuel” on December 24. The names are (in Latin, in order from December 24 backwards to the 18th) Emmanuel, Rex Gentium (King of all nations), Oriens (rising sun), Clavis David (key of David), Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), Adonai (Lord - the word used by Scripture in place of the divine name), Sapientia (Wisdom.) The first letter of each, read backwards from December 24, spells out “ERO CRAS” which means “Tomorrow I will be (there)”. Some medieval monk went to a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you say?

So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?

What do you have to say for yourself?”

He said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,

‘make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

God's Unfinished House

In Advent 1999, another lectionary year B, St. Anne was at the end of a process of consultation, revision, fundraising, and building that reshaped the entire campus. We built an entire new church building, with all original artwork and statuary, incorporating some design and material elements from pre-existing structures, rebuilding the school, and transforming the 50-year-old church into a beautiful daily mass chapel. We expected to celebrate Christmas in the new building, but unforeseen delays prevented that from happening, and we settled for first masses in the new space on Ash Wednesday, 2000, with dedication on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, which was on April 30 that year. 

I wrote this article for the bulletin, trying to bring Advent insight into what was happening for all of us. I think it reads pretty well today, too, even if we are still paying for the building! Or, even if your building is already paid for.

It seemed perfect, didn’t it? We would walk into our new church on Christmas eve, and begin a new era in the story of St. Anne Parish on this holy evening. It would be God’s Christmas present to us, just the right size, just what we asked for. Just what we thought we needed.

Then, right in the face of all our expectation and excitement, came the awful news that finishing the construction would take a few more weeks than expected, and coming into the new space would be delayed into the new year. Coal in our karmic stocking, as it were. Bummer. Another Christmas in the gym.

As I was reflecting on all this, I was re-reading the readings for Advent and for Christmas, the season for which Advent prepares us. Those Christmas readings speak of sentinels shouting for joy because “directly before their eyes, the Lord (is) restoring Zion.…All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” Now, prior to that restoration came a lot of suffering. What is our Zion, our Jerusalem, that is in ruins and awaiting God’s arrival? Might it not be our dream of a peaceful world, a world of equality and justice and security for all people, and for all children, where want and fear and violence are neither known nor remembered? Isn’t our hope for the new millennium fired by our desire for a world that knows God together, for an earth that is a new Eden, where we walk as sisters and brothers in the cool of evening with one God?

We wonder, with Isaiah, why God lets us wander from the Torah, the way. Can it be that God has left us here and forgotten us, we ask? Surely, if God remembers us, then we will act like we ought to. God must be hiding, or things wouldn’t be so bleak in the world. 

Advent offers us this reason to hope: God will do what God has promised. Christ is already born. Jesus lived, taught, gave an example, died and was raised from the dead. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the world in the Church and in a myriad of other unknown ways. While we wait for the fullness of the arrival of God’s revelation, we “are not lacking any spiritual gift” that we need in life. If God seems to delay, Paul says, it is really God being patient with us until we “get it,” until we change our hearts and live the mission of Jesus.

Instead of changing, though, we tend to make Advent a kind of historical pretending. We pretend for four weeks that Jesus isn’t born, and then pretend that he is born on December 25. Or we try kind of theological pretending that we’re waiting for Jesus to come again in glory, but since he doesn’t, we settle on his arrival on Christmas as a baby (again!). But faith can’t be about pretending, can it? We need Advent as a time of honesty, a time to see where Christ is (and he told us where to look) and where Christ isn’t. We’re not so adept at looking for the places where Jesus promised to be present, here and now, and looking for signs of our absence from him. How is our sight impaired so that we don’t see Christ in the hungry, the prisoner, the naked poor? How is our hearing impaired so that we don’t hear the cry of so many for food, water, justice? How is it that we can’t get these sin-hobbled legs of ours to respond to those so near who need our help?

In God’s day, when salvation arrives, those un-Christ-ed places will be completely healed. Isaiah announces that that day is coming, and his proclamation of a new heaven and new earth rings down the ages every Advent, every Christmas. John the Baptizer comes to announce that the day to decide for God is today. One hearer who heard John preach and believed and acted on his preaching was his cousin Jesus, and what a difference his decision made! Mark proclaims the beginning of a gospel, literally, a proclamation of a victory in a military campaign. In the wilderness, at the border between the known and the unknown, between civilization and chaos, the evangelist announces that the victory over oppression, false religion, and inequality is already won. Is it possible for us to believe it, and start living that way?

On the 4th Sunday of Advent in the first reading, David, from the comfort of his new palace, feels guilty that he has a beautiful house to live in, while the ark of God, symbol of the presence of God in Israel, dwells in a tent. David resolves to build a house for God. But God tells David that he’s got it all backwards: it is God who built David’s house, and only God can keep David’s house intact through the generations. God will build God’s house in God’s time. That house will be built one baby at a time, beginning with a royal heir for David. We have come to believe that, baby by baby, through famine and plenty, exile and restoration, war and peace, God kept the house of David alive right through Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and continues to build that house today in us, the people of God. 

So we don’t have a house for a few more weeks. That’s all right. It gives us time to remember that we are that house. God’s unfinished temple. Apparently, God will build the building in God’s own time. In the meanwhile, we await the Light that will awaken us to the beauty that already resides in us. We await a dawn when Light will gleam off the golden cross of us, the copper trim of us, and pour like wine and honey and seawater through the stained glass of us and we will be the house that God intends us to be. Then we the blind will see Christ as Christ is, and feed the hungry and visit the prisoner. Then we the deaf will hear the voice of Christ, and offer the drink, and clothe the body. Then we the lame will leap and dance, and run to the aid of the sick and the lonely. We await the Light, and the prophets and the liturgy tell us that the Light is already here. This Advent, while we wait for the doors of a new church to open for us, let us pray together for the grace to open our eyes, and let the light in.

“Christ, be our light.
Shine in our hearts, shine in the darkness.
Christ, be our light.
Shine on your church gathered today.” (Bernadette Farrell, “Christ Be Our Light”)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Listening for good news in a bad news world—Advent 2, Year B

“Advent” is from a Latin compound verb advenire, which means “to draw near” or “to approach”. The past participle of such a verb, a verb which you might say leans toward the future, is even more complex, sort of Einsteinian in its vision of approach as accomplished, yet still approach. It’s perfect, even if I am overstating it a little bit. The readings for this Sunday capture this longing for God’s approach perfectly, because that’s the human condition. We’re desperately aware, most of us, that we’re in dire straits, that the world is a place of uncertainty, insecurity, and violence. The strategy of civilization itself is to achieve equilibrium by vectors of violence, compromise, and various forms of anesthesia. For some of us, like the Israel of Isaiah or John the Baptist, or the Christians being addressed by the author of Second Peter, the threat to survival is real. Hunger, panic, persecution and harassment, these are the daily experience of many in the world even today. The strategy of the herald of good news is to tell the people to cling to the promise, to remember their story, because it’s a story of victory, even though it’s not a story of conquest and physical might. This might seem, to some, as just an opiate, urging folks to get through this life for the hope of a better life in another world. Only the heralds of scripture are convinced that God’s presence is near, is adventus, in this world, if we look for the signs of its arrival.

Now, as terrible as it is to have to admit this, we Christians have had two thousand years to be turning things around, and while baby steps have been made here and there, we’ve been a part of unspeakable violence and murder. Certainly there’s little doubt that the greatest blot on mankind in recent memory, the Holocaust, was perpetrated by a largely Christian nation upon the Jewish people. Let’s just admit that, and admit the complicity of indifference that did not confront the evil until it was too late. Similarly, the genocides of native peoples of the Americas by European settlers was rationalized by a strategy of christianization; the genocides of the Balkans and even of Rwanda were acts of Christians against Muslims in the one case and members of another tribal group in the latter case. We’ve given out as much as we’ve received, that much is clear. Nationalism has created thicker bonds between us than baptismal water, and it is a lie, because there is no bond deeper than the baptismal bond. I myself have been too often silenced by the proclamation that I only have the freedom I have to disagree with, in my case, “the American way” because others have fought and died for that freedom. Now I’m beginning to see that that’s a lie, that is civilization's way of keeping itself going by continuing to reject the God of life, the one who sometimes leads a ragtag band across the desert from exile to start over, the God who joins the race as a member of a dominated culture, and dies by capital punishment at the hands of imperial power. We need to rethink this violence of preservation, or else give up our self-designation as a “Christian” nation.

Remember Christiane Amanpour’s ongoing articles on signs of hope in areas of the world where there have been epidemics of genocide? We slowly come to know the horrors of these things through the truth and reconciliation committees in place in so many locations. Brave witnesses and even victims come forward to tell the truth. They expose for us the ugly truth that counterfeit communities of “in groups” form in these genocidal situations, and that previously normal neighbors who had worked together and intermarried become murderous thugs, torturers, and rapists. These counterfeit communities, like street gangs in cities all over the world, are doing for evil and the dehumanization of the planet the very opposite of what true religion is for, that is, to bind people together in communities of mutuality and respect. Today as in the days of Isaiah, John the Baptizer, and the persecutions of Christians by the Roman empire, there are forces in the world that seek to victimize and scapegoat groups of outsiders. There are strategies of grace at work in these horrible conditions. There are heralds of good news in every walk of life, bringing life to places that are full of death and horror, making the path straight for the return of God’s people.

Natalie Dubose, Ferguson bakeshop owner
We like to see strategies of grace close to home, too, like Brad Pitt's “making it right” project in New Orleans, building 100 homes a year to allow people to come back and have a place to live, after they were abandoned by their government in the wake of the hurricane there. After the riots in Ferguson MO a couple of weeks ago, community members came forward quickly to asser the values of solidarity and reparation, working to re-enfranchise local businesses. Artists turned out in dozens to decorate the boarded-up windows of riot-damaged restaurants on South Grand while their owners reopened behind those same boarded-up windows in 24 or 48 hours. (Pictures here. Check out the messages in the art, and lines like, "Pay what you can.") That’s a strategy of grace. Even closer to home, right in my parish, I see already overworked suburban families reaching out to our sharing parish, to our food pantries, to the poor in the area through Project Hope, even to a mission in the Congo. This kind of work helps reinforce baptismal bonds among us in the Holy Spirit, bonds that made us the body of Christ, and bonds that need to be strengthened to stand up to the assault of the call to violence and sectarianism that echo even to our little suburb in northern Illinois.

So we sing this weekend the words of Psalm 85: Lord, let us see your kindness! Grant us your salvation. Put the accent on “us” when you pray it. In other words, we know you save, God. We know you are kind. Let us see it. In my paraphrase we’re using at St. Anne’s, I put it even more explicitly in the refrain:

Let me taste your mercy like rain on my face.

Here, in my life, show me your peace.

Let us see with our own eyes your day burning bright.

Come, O Morning. Come, O Light.

Here’s the rest of our music for the weekend:

Gathering: Come to Us, O Emmanuel (Haugen, GIA)
Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain (Cooney) The link goes to the "Songstories" post on this blog about "Your Mercy Like Rain," which has a SoundCloud excerpt embedded. Give it an audition, if you haven't heard it before. Mysteriously, it disappeared from Gather between versions 1 and 2. Sigh.
Preparation Rite: Come, O Lord (Damean Music, GIA)
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You (Cooney, GIA)
 This also links to the appropriate "Songstories" post about "Wilderness," which is, as I see it, one of my best songs.
Closing: On Jordan’s Bank (traditional, #321 in Gather). As an option at the Sunday night mass where the teens participate, we’ll be using Come, Emmanuel by Tony Alonso, his litanic and upbeat adaptation of the plainsong hymn.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mystery of Incarnation: the sinless made to be sin

I waken every morning in complete darkness during winter, and unbelievably, this morning I started thinking over this passage from 2nd Corinthians that we hear on Ash Wednesday. I’ve heard it dozens of times; more than most of my colleagues, in fact, because not only do I get to hear it four or five times a year that day, I also got to hear it and practice with readers at Forum institutes on reconciliation many times in the past. And it always makes me stop and wonder, how is it that God made Christ “sin”? It can’t simply be incarnation, not if God created people to be good. Making a person can’t be making sin. In my half-sleep, that creatively annoyed phase between REM and coffee, I mused over this.

It occurs to me that the issue might be our pesky individuality, the illusion that we (western?) humans labor under, that we are disconnected from everyone else. Even in a tribal culture like that of Judea in the first century, where belonging to the “in” group was everything, the difference between life and death, individuation seems to have been a problem, and understandably, as the rivalry among siblings might impinge on one’s survival. In our time, in the United States, individualism has risen to an art form, and amplifies our competitive nature. We pride ourselves in the “pioneer spirit” and “rugged individualism,” forgetting that few pioneers or rugged individuals survived on their own, relying both on the power of numbers and of cavalry outposts to enforce their survival. We are “self-made” men and women, we think that anyone having trouble ought to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because “God helps those that helps themselves,” reinventing the gospel for übermenschen. We even have a political party whose task, it seems, has been to uproot government as much as possible so that the individual has as much authority to do what s/he wants with her life and wealth no matter what happens to anyone else. The mutuality represented by government is seen as an oppressor, and one that needs to be overcome. As one venerable party member from a conservative think-tank put it, “I want to shrink government to the size where I can drown it in a bathtub.”

God counters this with the revelation that God’s very self is communitarian, that God is both one-and-three. Perhaps Jesus had to weave his way through the minefield of individuality, probably quite a task for a person who was probably very talented and inquisitive, until he reached a point where it was possible for him to internalize the Torah, to see that loving God and neighbor are equally important tasks, that to love one’s neighbor, that is, to live for one’s neighbor, is to love God, and that one ought to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. This is not to say that individuality is bad; we’re not the Borg, after all. But when push comes to shove, we have to be able to say and know that the other person is as important as we are, and so our choices really come down to what is better for the other, not what is better for me. “He made him who did not know sin to be sin,” but by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the triune God, Jesus became aware and began to act for a world where everyone is equal because we’re part of a living organism, a family that is God’s alone.

And so we have a sacrament of baptism to remind us of this, and we even use the word “incorporation” into Christ to describe the grace of baptism—we go from being individuals to being members of a body. “I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me,” says St. Paul. By the gift of that Holy Spirit, especially when we cooperate with it, we “become the very holiness of God,” we share in God’s communitarian life, we live it in this world, loving our enemies, welcoming and helping strangers and all who need us. We live the kenosis life of God that does not deem even godliness something to be held onto at all costs, but pours self out for the life of the other. This is what it means to be God, and thus it is what it means to be fully human, made in the divine image.

Not me, but us. And so the Advent question becomes, “which world am I living in, the world of self-preservation or the world of mutuality and self-gift?” It is this latter world that John the Baptist and Jesus came to announce as the reign of God, that no one is alone. No one is alone because God is come to save us, and is coming through the presence and ministry of the reconciling community. Whose is the exile I’m called to ease this week? Who is the captive that needs release in my neighborhood, or my circle of acquaintances?

The author of the earliest gospel was excited about the possibilities, but possibly cautious after the first fires of apostolic zeal had started to burn down. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is begun. Who has the desire to listen to its vision, and be carried by it into the future?

For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5: 21)

Sunday, November 30, 2014



shock and aftershock
eruption and quiet
November’s wordstorms,
downpour of images, now
quiescent, december one.
the humid respite after coupling,
acrid silence after gunshot,
there is a space after wonder,
as rest after creation.
The artist, even God, uses self up,
and there must be time to collect,
gather strength, sinew, a seventh day.
When the metaphors crawl,
when the well is more stingy
though the arm toil no less at the pump,
the heart darkens with amethyst wonder:
“will the muse sleep here again?”
will meaning vibrate again between
touch and color, the sound of things,
wriggling carelessly into words
representing life’s agony and elation
only like costumes, children on Halloween,
or, rarely, transparent actors?

Nothing is enough. Neither
the typhoon nor its eye, nor
the chase, nor embrace. But
better these inkstained knuckles,
blank paper, the haunted
sleep of the watchman, the ache
of a lover waiting a word,
than the silence after the encore,
the viscous glop of time while things grow.

Rory Cooney, 12/1/92

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Advent (Year B)

So here we are starting Advent again, a whole month after Christmas carols started playing nonstop on WXMS-FM and Walmart started selling candy canes and reindeer wrapping paper. Everyone (including most of us, I suppose) is in the middle of a season for which we are now on day one of preparing. Does it feel a little foolish?

I used to think so. I was probably a little too literal with the idea of Advent preparing for Christmas, as though Christmas hadn't happened yet, and we were going to spoil it by celebrating too early. But I've come to see that there's a sense in which all the “merry Christmas” wishes, baking, card mailing, gift buying, and partying can all be part of preparing for Christmas. I'm not quite ready, though, to dispense with the Advent season and its pared-down signs and expectant language full of “keep awake” and “prepare” and “save us” and “mercy." In fact, of the four Advent movements in the liturgy every year, "watch," "prepare," "rejoice," and "yes," I think we're only good at "rejoice," and usually for the wrong reasons, because we leave people out. 

I'm certainly not ready to forgo the great Advent word, the word built into the name of Advent itself: “Veni” or in our own tongue, “Come.” Because we know, through all the commerce, the parties, and the One Direction Christmas Spectaculars, however much we think the Christmas deed is done and Jesus has come and gone and it's all ancient history, that something's still not quite right. God may be with us, but not, it seems, all the way. Or is he? If Christ is among us, can things be as fractured, violent, and joyless, even in the church, as they seem to be? 

We see a world in need of peace. We are aware of kidnappings, drone strikes, and beheadings. We need to be saved by someone with a strategy for peace other than violence and retribution. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.

We see a world in need of healing. We mourn our losses from alcohol and drug addiction, worry about cancer and dementia, cut public funding to care for the physically and mentally challenged, and argue over who should receive and pay for access to health care. We need to be saved by someone who will waken us to our responsibility to each other, with a strategy for healing that embraces and does not isolate. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”

We see a world fractured by divisions,  a world of closed borders and bitter acrimony in the very places where compromise and cooperation ought to mark our discourse. We need to be saved by someone with a strategy other than separation, armament, and argument. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”

We live in a society that glorifies competition, that deifies winners, grooms entertainment  idols and sports champions. We need to be saved by someone who can give us relationships that are not adversarial, that build people up and care for the weak. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”

However comfortable we try to be, however good our economic and physical defenses are, we know something's wrong. The only escape path from fear, we think, is escalation: higher walls, better weapons, more prisons. But that is a circular path, in fact, a downward spiral paved with loss and anguish. We need to be saved from that road to a hell that we ourselves have designed. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”

Advent says, “You can’t shop and party your way out of unhappiness and fear. Oblivion isn’t a cure; it’s a delusion.” Advent says, “Not so fast with the celebration. Look at what's going on around you. Face the sign of the times.” Advent says, “The patient God has a plan for you in Christ, and it requires your participation. Are you all in? Not yet. Not by a long shot. But there is some good news. Something good has already started. Look for the signs of God’s strategy, listen for God’s invitation, and turn around. Cooperate, surrender, opt in, and God will see it to completion.” 

And so we begin to share Mark’s story of Jesus. We should sit up and take notice, because there's something here for this broken, sick, divided, adversarial world of ours. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The beginning of the gospel? What will happen next? 

That will depend, somehow, on how we spend Advent. Watch. Prepare. Rejoice. Say yes. “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keep Awake - Advent 1, Year B

It’s always a little bit of a surprise when Advent starts again. For us church musicians, there’s that cold shiver unrelated to the falling snow that Christmas has to be less than four weeks away. But for everyone else, and for us, there’s also the strange sense that something new is starting at an inconvenient time, that we’re at the end of the year, but something new, a new year of grace, is beginning. And equally strangely, it seems to start about where the last year ended: at the end.

For me, mixed into this mixed-up scenario is the mass on Thanksgiving Day. We’re in a real mess here in this country, and this country is certainly not alone. But it occurred to me that it was a very small step from “thanksgiving” this week to a prayer that sounds scarily pharisaic: “I thank you, God, that I’m not like the rest of the people out there: unemployed, poor, blown to smithereens, addicted to heroin, not born in the U.S.A., homeless, illegal.” 

Maybe we sometimes revert in our hearts to the old “prayer” that goes, “there but for the grace of God go I.” That is the ultimate irony. Because according to the gospel we heard on November 23, wherever that pitiable “other” is that causes our pathos gene to fire off an RNA message to lip synch gratitude, s/he is, in fact, the grace of God passing by. The other, sick, in prison, hungry, thirsty, is me. 

So it seems that the grace involved in these encounters really isn’t pity. There’s no time for pity. Pity is a waste of time, clutching chronos rather than embracing kairos. The only response of a grateful Christian heart is action on behalf of the other. To love another person is to love Christ and God and self all at one time. To ignore or pity the other person is to do the same to our best self.

Advent is asking us, it seems to me, to rouse our wakefulness to the signs of Christ’s presence and absence. We are a mess, in Ferguson, in the Middle East, in Congress, because we're a mess inside. Isaiah admits that we’re a mess, but that things aren’t hopeless because we’re clay in the hands of the potter, we’re a work in progress. St. Paul says that everything we need is already inside of us because of the Holy Spirit’s living within us through Christ. Where is Christ in the justice system? Where is Christ in the economy? In the health care and climate change and immigration debates? In the clamor for LGBT rights? There has to be an answer. Where there are needs, there are gifts already given. What can we do about it? We can ask that question about all the places in which God seems to be hiding from us, that great Absence that makes our best deeds seem like “polluted rags,” leaving us feeling guilty and withered. 

Here we are at the end again, but at the beginning of a year, “the beginning of the gospel.” Here we are at the outset of Advent again. How will God invite us to participate in the gospel during this year of grace? First question is, where are we needed? Then, what are our gifts? What are the signs? Keep awake! 

And that is an effort in itself on these shortened days, when darkness gathers well before even an early dinner hour. Everything except the gospel seems to be telling us, “Go to sleep. It’ll be all right.” Or maybe, "Buy things. Eat more. Drink more. It'll be all right." Well, it’s not all right. But from out in the wilderness a shout of good news flies on the wind. There’s a gospel voice announcing an alternative way, and it's close, very close. Let’s try to keep awake and listen.

What we're singing at St. Anne’s on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014.

Gathering: Come to Us, O Emmanuel (Haugen, Gather 3rd ed.)
Psalm 80: Lord, Come and Save Us (Kendzia, OCP)
. Simply put, the most gorgeous, lyrical setting of Psalm 80 available. Melodically irresistible, harmonically rich, emotionally pleading. I'm prejudiced, I know, but there's no need for any other setting of this psalm.
Preparation Rite: Turn Around (Cooney, GIA, unreleased)
 The published version of this song (I've just seen the proofs in the last couple of weeks) will include the three recorded version and three optional verses for the last Sundays and Advent. The theme of the song is wrapped around a way of hearing the proclamation of John the Baptizer and then of Jesus in their ministry, "Turn around (i.e., repent) and believe in the gospel." The Advent verse is like this:
Good news, you who long to be free from the rod,
Good news, you perplexed by the silence of God.
The vile ancient spell of the merchants of death
God breaks with a word from a maid.
Come then, with voice glad and clear
Announce the good news for all people to hear,
The good news of Christ: "God's reign has come near,
Turn around and believe in the gospel."
Communion: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell, OCP)
Recessional: The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (arr. Cooney, GIA)

“Watch, therefore;

you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,

whether in the evening, or at midnight,

or at cockcrow, or in the morning.

May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.

What I say to you, I say to all:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

For Ray East, my brother (November 1992)

I've known Fr. Ray East for a long time, thanks to the conference circuit to which I was occasionally attached from the mid-1980s for 25 years or so. Ray is still a frequent speaker at major conferences, in fact, he was a plenum speaker at this summer's NPM in St. Louis. Ray touched Terry's and my heart forever when he came to our hotel room in the summer of 1995 after another NPM (Cincinnati?) just a month or so after Desi had been born, and sat on the bed with Terry and blessed Desi in that way that Ray has that makes you know that that baby was really blessed, and things would be good for him.

Ray was also a passenger on the famous Big Island Bus Ride of 1992, and he and I stayed together, with the late Fr. Jim Dunning, at the house of some Malia Puka o Kalani parishioners. My most persistent memory of Ray that year was that somehow he loved to eat breadfruit, which I found puzzling to the point of incredulity. That is some nasty food, at least it was to my then-carnivorous taste buds, and I could only shake my head in amazement at his apparently bottomless appetite for the stuff.

Anyway, in the subsequent weeks to that trip, I wrote this poem about him, which still resonates with me a little bit, the ideas helping me to overlook the shortcomings of my poetic style. Without any further self-pity, here's the poem.

For Ray East, my brother
raymond lives
in the United States of America.
Not one of the fifty, but deep
in the City of Compromises.
He rejoices when a man’s years
exceed his ability to live them,
for he has spent too many nights
like this, tracing oily crosses
on the bloodied brows of boys,
watching the foamy convulsions
of girls whose innocence did not dim
when they opened themselves to strangers
to buy, from a looking-glass Moses
escape or orgasm from a rock. 
raymond sings
when he drives, sings 'Been So Busy,’
or Paul Simon, Jacques Brel.
Saturday night in the District
crouches around him,
lies and broken promises roam freely here,
they resent the rich baritone with tears in it,
hold their ears until hell
can silence him with sorrow, sirens, street beat. 
raymond is
a small man who lives on his smile
he takes his bread
at the table which invites him.
raymond remembers
Moses, and says, Yes, my brother,
raymond worships
Jesus and says, Yes, my brother,
raymond believes
in Sojourner and Harriet and Rosa, says, Yes, my sister,
raymond knows
Martin and Malcolm X, Desmond and Biko, says, Yes, my brothers.
raymond parks
and wonders why the children don’t cry
why the police don’t cry
where are the mothers, fathers,
and why doesn’t the city stop?
Hasn’t a piece of the continent
been washed away? 
raymond weeps
for this boy whose heart has a steelblown hole,
this girl whose dead black eyes need more
this baby whose screams burst her lungs,
(crack convulsions)
raymond leaves
the scene in silence.
darkness is cocked like a gun. Then 
raymond sings.
It is Sunday, raymond thinks,
today I will tell them a story.
Today the ancient Spirit
will enter raymond, a zebra
Spirit, Bantu Spirit, gazelle.
raymond’s people will remind him,
—God is good ALL THE TIME—
sirens. a baby cries. someone
says, Amen, amen. Fat flies
circle over wine like blood.
When the heaven’s black light turns him
to a river of obsidian fire
where his people can swim,
we hear (sirens) drums and music
hammer on spike, a stone rolls.
Raymond dances.
Rory Cooney, © 1992

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cleaning up our mess (Christ the King, Year A)

We buried our friend Tom O'Hern this week. Tom was a former Vincentian priest who had been serving in the seminary in Nairobi. When he reached a certain point in his life, let's call it his conversion, he left the priesthood, but stayed in Kenya. Eventually, he stayed among the half a million people who live in the five-square-mile slum called Korogocho. Unable to cleanse his consciousness of the hopelessness of their situation in a land whose government is thoroughly corrupt and whose poverty is endemic, he left his old life behind, and entered into their world. He saw his job as trying to impart to them some sense of their own value, some glimmer of the truth of their humanity as children of God, by starting soccer teams and support groups, eventually building a charity called "Family Hope Charity" that worked in recovery, halfway houses, medical care, and shelter for abandoned children. He survived thefts and assaults, and with the kind of irony generally associated with fiction, finally lost his life while on an annual visit to the USA and checking in with his family, friends, and the charity's board and benefactors. He poured himself out, and his body could not keep up with his spirit.

Tom did what God does: poured himself out. Entered the lives of the poor, and gave everything. A Kenyan priest, speaking words of remembrance, gave Tom credit for his vocation, and said, "I am—we are (referring to his colleagues)—the seeds Tom planted." People in Korogocho know that God-is-with-us because they know that Tom-is-with-us. Tom lives still because God remembers Tom. Others, inspired by the gospel that inspired Tom, will take up his work. Cleaning up the mess that is the poverty, corruption, and violence of life is a long, patient process of participation in God's project. That's what the feast of Christ the King is about. So let me start with that, and finish up this Year A with some thoughts on the scriptures and music for this week.

At the end of the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus leaves his apostles with the command to "Go and preach the gospel to all nations," and reassuring them with his promise, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."(Mt. 28:20) It seems reasonable to imagine, given the chaos in the Roman empire by the end of the first century, that early Christians wondered whether that was actually the case, and if it was, how exactly was it true? How is Jesus with us in the devastation that was Jerusalem and the violent vortex of "civilization," Rome under Nero and his successors?

The chaos wasn't new, but the gospel of "Emmanuel," that is, God-with-us (Mt. 1:23) is proposing an answer to the question about Christ's presence in the chaos in a number of ways, certainly in the "church discourse" in chapter 18, where the gospel points to harmony in the community and unity in prayer as signs of the indwelling presence of Christ. Joseph's dream in chapter one and the parting words of Jesus are an inclusio, sort of literary bookends to the gospel, and the reader is thus alerted to look between them for the meaning of "being-with" in the life of the believer.

One interpretation of the life of the "historical Jesus" is that he was an eschatological prophet, unique in his message, but similar to others who arose in Israel between the time of the Maccabees and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Prophets from Moses to Elijah to Ezekiel (who speaks in today's first reading) to John the Baptizer arose at critical times in Israel's history to help Israel navigate the times when the power of pharaohs, kings, and emperors seemed to be at odds with the power of God, and not just at odds, but winning the battle, at least the exit polls. Prophets are sent to tell the truth to power, usually at mortal risk, and their truth is witnessed by the rest of us, who are, finally, allowed to choose between the truth of God's covenant and the truth of the emperor. In this, at least, Jesus is in the prophetic tradition.

Around the time of the the Maccabees, apocalyptic literature began to appear in Israel, which I understand to be a sort of "underground newspaper", the herald of a different empire, a way of letting people know to "keep the faith" in coded language of allegory and metaphor. The Book of Daniel is an example of this that survives in scripture, with its message of a "son of man" who will arise to clean up the horrors associated with the malevolence of Antiochus Epiphanes and his blasphemous desecration of the temple. Around this time as well, other "wisdom" literature begins to suggest that a just God must have a resurrection of the dead in mind as a reward for those who gave their lives in defense of the faith. Ezekiel's promise in the first reading today, in which God promises, against the shepherds who have misled Israel, that "I myself will shepherd them," is an early parallel of this kind of apocalyptic promise. It is God's intention, scripture promises, that what has been messed up on this planet will be remade, even if God has to do it personally.

The "son of man" who appears in the apocalyptic parable in the gospel this Sunday is first found in the book of Daniel as the agent of God's "clean up" of the situation in the world. (That image is not mine, but John Dominic Crossan's, and can be found, for instance, in his book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now as well as in numerous other books and articles on the subject). "Son of man" is an aramaism that simply means "a human being," so the one called upon by God to do the cleaning up just appears to be a human being, although given divine authority and power to do the job given to him. It is the "son of man" who appears in the parable at the end of time, and while tradition has come to the conclusion that the "son of man" is Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus thought so when and if he spoke the words, or that it was meant to be prophetic in the secular sense of "seeing into the future." The gospel is describing something about the present situation in a world that needs to be cleaned up. It is answering the question, "If Christ is God-with-us, and present with us now, then where is he?" It's a question about the current situation of the world, and what God is doing about it. And it's answered by the parable. "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

Of course, there is all the (important, of course) academic and theological discussion about who "the least of these" refers to, and what the condemnation of the goats to "eternal punishment" means. But in any case we need to be careful not to turn the parable into an allegory. The core of it, it seems to me, is that Christ is present in the needs of people here and now, and to serve them is to serve Christ. The "second coming" of Christ, like the first one, has already happened, is happening now. We might miss it if we're looking for the wrong kind of emperor, and the wrong kind of God. This God, this emperor, this "king of the universe," has poured himself out into history, and taken the side of the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the sick, and the poor.

Which brings us back to the feast day today, the feast of "Jesus Christ, King of the Universe." We can put all the red cloth, gold, trumpets, and festival anthems out there that we want to, but the word of God cannot be contravened, and every year it comes back convicting us by its truth and pushing back against our dreams of glory, conquest, and the violent defeat of our enemies. "The Lord is my shepherd," we hear, not "The Lord is my stealth bomber." God's justice is not retributive, paying back evil with vengeance, but distributive, giving to each what each needs. And it is participatory, which is to say, we are invited into the action, to be part of God's great clean-up of the earth, because "whatever you do to one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you do unto me." Whatever the reason the Church had through the years for instituting and revising the feast of Christ the King, it cannot dispense with the gospel, which can only present the true Christ. That Christ is servant, healer, first of many brothers and sisters, whose irrevocable identification and alliance with the poor and strategy of participatory distributive justice is the gospel, is God-with-us, "until the end of the age."

My friend Tom O'Hern knew that, and participated in God's project with his "whole mind, soul, heart, and strength." If our faith is true, then he has heard the words we all ache to hear, and which continue to needle our complacency and call us to be imitators, like Tom, of Christ:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. 
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink? 
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you? 
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

You can donate to Family Hope Charity here, if you like, in memory of Tom and his work.

What we're singing at St. Anne this week (updated for 2017):
Entrance: Psalm 122 The Road to Jerusalem (Cooney, OCP)
Mass of St. Ann-with-no-E Gloria (Bolduc)
Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd (Daigle, GIA)
Preparation Rite: To You Who Bow (Coone, GIA)
Communion: Whatsoever You Do (Jabusch)
Sending Forth: Find Us Ready (Booth)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Losing interest (A33O)

or, "Use your talents, but not because of this parable."

The contentious chapters of Matthew between the entry into Jerusalem and the passion-resurrection narrative serve both to amplify the tensions between Jesus and the Temple authorities and also, as they lead to the disappearance of Jesus from the visible presence of his disciples, serve to heighten the question, "When is Jesus returning, and what should we do in the meanwhile?" God, says the apocalyptic tradition, is going to clean things up one way or another on the way to a new heaven and a new earth.

But it's a bumpy road, and this apocalyptic writing is one human literary expression of the dissonance between the promise of a new world and the quotidian quagmire of this one. We hear a lot of it, from both Jewish and Christian scriptures, on the weekdays and Sundays of November. On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, we have the parable of the talents, paired with a reading from Wisdom literature about the qualities of a good wife, and a psalm extolling the blessings of those who walk in God's ways. It doesn't seem very promising, and I think the homiletic temptation will be to default to the easy interpretation of that parable: use your talents, if you have a lot, a lot will be expected from you, but no one gets to slide. In the worst cases, and hopefully these will not be in church, the text will be used to say that "God helps those who help themselves," and that the bright, creative, and entrepreneurial deserve more than the rest of us.

But modern parable study warns us not to move too quickly to a Bannion-esque interpretation, glorifying profit and condemning indolence. We are encouraged by scholars to hear the parable, if we can, with Jewish ears, first-century Jewish ears, and not be too quick to associate the parable's master going on a journey with God. After all, the third servant identifies the master as "severe," a man who "reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter." And to seal the deal, the master agrees with the servants assessment. Do we really want a God like that? Would a God like that be good news to the 99% who get the one talent, or less?

First of all, the word "talent" in the parable is an unhappy cognate of our English word meaning "gift," and prejudices our reading. In reality, the amounts of money entrusted to the servants are ridiculously huge. It's like Jesus would start the story, "A man went away, and gave his servants millions of dollars to take care of while he was gone." As 21st century christians in a capitalist culture, we think the guys who invest and make interest on the investment are doing good work, and the third guy is a loser, because all he manages to do is not lose any of his boss's kale.

But how would Jews hear the parable? In all of the Jewish scripture, every reference to interest is a negative  one. The Torah forbids the charging of interest on loans, particularly to fellow Israelites, particularly the poor. Psalm 15, referring to the "just" person, that is, the one who does God's will, describes him as not lending money with interest. (Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, cites, for instance Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23, and Leviticus 25, as well as Ezekiel and 2 Maccabbees). Further, consider the structure of the story and the rule of three. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where we have first a levite then a priest passing by the injured man and not lending assistance, and then the third, the Samaritan, coming by. What is expected is that the third character will provide, finally, some decisive action that will turn the story around. Both pieces of evidence, the Jewish restriction against interest and the story of the structure itself suggest that the third servant, the one who hid his master's money, is the good one, and he is the one who gets punished. What can we make of this?

Well, it's hard to be definitive, of course, but the first step is to hear this story as a parable and not an allegory. The parables of Jesus are meant to open up our hearts to the reign of God, that alternative Way wherein the values of the dominant society are seen for the empty promises they make, and a different empire with a different rule, specifically, rule by a father (Abba) over a household of equals who take care of each other, is lived out. The Romans, and certainly empires ever since that have been built on the foundation of money and power, had no problem with lending money at interest. Might this parable, like the rest of Jesus's preaching, have been a summons to choose between empires? What world, in other words, do we want to live in? The world of Caesar, debt and interest, violence and threats, or the world of the empire of God? "How's that working out for you?", all those threats expectations of profit and gain from structures that "reap where they don't sow and gather where they do not scatter"? Can we be OK with the ones, right now, who just say "no" to the world of credit cards, life insurance, and funny money created by speculation, and who imagine another way? 

I'm pretty sure that the framers of the lectionary used a "we should use our talents" reading of today's parable whn they chose the first reading. But let's read it the other way for a moment: now, the reading from the Old Testament stands as a corrective against a quietist reading of Matthew, in case one were to plead the case of the third servant and aver that it doesn't matter if we use our gifts or not. Surely we understand that all of scripture is read in a context, and that Pauline admonitions to use our gifts for the good of the community, particularly those in need of them, are among the foundational texts of the church's self-image. The woman of value cited in Proverbs, or any person of value, is praised for many attributes, including the fact that she "reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy."

The responsorial psalm is from Psalm 128, which celebrates the home of those who "fear the Lord," that is, those who know and respect God and God's law. I'd like to suggest that we sing it this week, we accentuate the word "Lord" in the refrain, "May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives." Not wealth, prosperity, possessions, status, but a sense of God's love at work in our lives, participation in God's project of uniting all creatures on this planet, men and women, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, living now and yet to be born, in a family of mutual nurture and self-gift. Those who do so will "eat the fruit of your handiwork; happy shall you be and favored." (It strikes me that the framers of the lectionary may also have chosen this psalm for its equating happiness with "fear" of the Lord. If so, maybe they did foresee a day when the quaking third servant might indeed be the happy one, who did the right thing in spite of his spiteful master!)

What we're singing this weekend:

Gathering: All That We Have, (Dameans) 
Psalm 128 All the Days of Our Lives, (Cooney) 
Prep: These Alone Are Enough, (Schutte)
Communion: You Are All We Have, (O'Brien)
Sending Forth: Find Us Ready, (Booth)